The little story behind “Scratches and Needles”

One Saturday night in the spring of 1982, Alex Soria, Guy “Fit” Caron, Doug Crevier and I wound up at a party in an NDG basement with “real” punks – young men and women who looked, acted, and dressed the part. We, on the other hand, were just regular looking kids into punk rock music who had heard of a party and thought it might be fun to hang out. We walked into something we weren’t prepared for – a party of fucked up punks on more than just beer and wine. I remember being nervous before we walked in, wondering if we should be going in there at all. When we walked inside and down the stairs to a damp and dingy basement, I think the four of us just wanted to get the hell out of there quick. We stuck out like sore thumbs – four regular looking sixteen year-old kids in an older crowd of about 20 punks dressed in leather and studs with many of them looking like they were on chemicals we’d never heard of before. We stuck close together, finding a spot along the wall and trying not to draw even more attention to ourselves. We settled in after a while, helped by couple of beers and conversation with a couple of punks who could see we were out of our element and tried to make conversation with us. Then we saw something that completely freaked us out.

A young man, who from the moment we walked in struck us as really fucked up, began hurting himself. Badly. He had taken a beer bottle cap and began scratching the underside of his arm with it over and over again, his flesh turning pearly white until it began to bleed. The blood didn’t even stop this poor soul, and he didn’t show any indication of being in pain. I don’t know how many times that bottle cap went up and down that arm, but it was a sickening sight we never forgot. Not long after that we left and breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when we got outside, for once looking forward to the normalcy and safety of our suburban homes. On the following Monday at school, Alex told me he had written a song about what happened that night called “Scratches and Needles” and showed me the lyrics. Little did he know then what he wrote that weekend would ensure that we’d never forget that party. To our astonishment, it has become a Canadian punk classic.

Why? Obviously, Alex had innate songwriting ability as anyone who has ever worked with him or loved his music knows. As a a kid writing punk rock songs at age 12, he was really into stuff that had melody like the Buzzcocks, Jam, Clash, and the Saints, but was then totally warped by the Germs (who couldn’t be?) by 15. He got into hardcore punk, sort of, but only for a short period of time. He got bored with it real quick as any decent songwriter would. What he really wanted was the kind of energy that hardcore generated with a “pop sensibility”, as he used to always say. He was telling us this in 1982, before we’d even heard Bad Religion or Social D. When I first saw the Nils play at a practise in the winter of ’82, they were really into the Jam. Many at the time called them “mod”. They weren’t far off, but the songs were just beginning to change because Rick Trembles had got him into the Germs a few months earlier and he flipped. “The Gathering” (1981) on the “Now” cassette is the only song that was written during the “mod” phase (Alex was a Paul Weller freak in his early teens) that got recorded, but by the time it was recorded he was well into great hardcore like the Germs, DOA, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks. So here was this precocious 16 year old kid into Paul Weller who’s been writing decent songs for 4 years who gets into hardcore punk and then writes this song called “Scratches and Needles”. Musically, he was embracing early hardcore but he still loved the Jam and the Buzzcocks. And punk really needed this at the time. I think that’s why BYO made the song the first track on the “Something to Believe In” compilation. Out of the hundreds of tapes they got after soliciting material for that record, probably mostly thrash, they find this jem of a tape by a totally unknown band from Montreal. And “Now” really is a gem. Just ask Jack Rabid at the Big Takeover, probably the first shameless Nils fan outside of Montreal.

“Scratches and Needles” was a watershed of sorts, for both Alex personally and North American punk. In Lee Aaron’s strong pitch for DOA’s “Disco Sucks” for an essential 70s track, she says “If you’re talking 70s you just can’t omit the punk movement”. I say you can’t omit the punk movement in the 80s either. It sill had some growing up to do and “Scratches and Needles” would help it along.

Robert Huppee (aka Kung Fu, guit-Gencon), Alex Soria (guit-Nils/Chino), Doug Crevier (bass-Gencon) Chico Fit (bass-Nils), and yours truly. Picture taken a couple of months after the incident that inspired “Scratches and Needles”.

Joel Plaskett Nominates “Scratches and Needles” for CBC’s 50 Tracks

Woke up to 50 tracks today and was quietly thrilled to catch Joel Plaskett’s case for putting “Scratches and Needles” on their list of top 50 “most important Canadian pop songs”. I’ll definitely be taping this when they replay the show on Saturday night at 7:30. I had never heard of Mr. Plaskett until I’d read his post in the comments section of Jamie O’Meara’s Alex Soria Obit, and even then I didn’t realize he was a celebrity of sorts. He made a great case for the song making the list, but I doubt the other guests are going to give it a nod on Friday so it’ll come down to a public vote next week on their website. The good news is you can vote as often as you like, so if we can get a pretty determined bunch to vote often then it might stand a chance – it just depends on what the other songs are. Pity the Demics’ “New York City” this week is up against “Snowbird” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are”. It’s out of the running already. If “Disco Sucks” had to go to the public vote, it wouldn’t come close either.

Shelagh Rogers did not like the song – which is exactly what I expected. She was probably a Parachute Club fan when the Nils were opening for X in 1983. At least one of the guests, forget who, liked it but didn’t think it should be on the list. We would have had better luck with the 70s panel last week.

Have to say it was weird hearing “Scratches and Needles” in the context of that show – as it was with the Demics and DOA last week. The coolest thing is the next nomination after the Nils was Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”, and the panel wasn’t too crazy about that either. We could have a situation by Friday where Neil Young and the Nils will be up against each other in the voting!!!! I know who Alex would vote for – Neil Young. In an instant. I’m afraid I’ll have to defy Alex’s wishes and vote for “Scratches…”. Still, it would be cool to have the Nils up there in the voting along with Neil Young – probably one of Alex’s biggest influences (along with Chris Baily and Paul Westerberg). Yeah!

The Nils and Neil Young on 50 tracks – CBC Hotsheet

“Scratches and Needles” on 50 tracks?

I’ve been listening to CBC’s 50 tracks show since the summer (50 most essential songs of all-time), and while lists are always necessarily incomplete, the process itself has proved interesting. They were so successful with it this summer they’ve been doing a 50 tracks on the “most important Canadian pop songs”. It never occured to me until they started to play the the Diodes’ “I’m Tired of Waking Up Tired”, the Demics’ “New York City”, and then DOA’s “Disco Sucks” last week that this list might include punk. When DOA’s “Disco Sucks” made this list I couldn’t believe it! If DOA could make it on a list of 50 “most important Canadian pop songs of all-time , why not the Nils’ “Scratches and Needles”? So I wrote my case for nominating the Nils with this email I sent in this morning.

The Nils: Scratches and Needles – 1980s Nominee

This Week

(Two months since Alex died.)

It’s been a week of seeing bands…

The Nymphets/The Captains – Barfly on Monday

Just so happened to be in the bar for this and was thoroughly entertained. I was worried when opening band The Captains took to the floor without a bassist – just a guitar and drums. I was already bitching a little to Ted the bartender about bands that don’t have a bass, but decided I would would take care of my ears by plugging them up a bit of toilet paper so the high-end wouldn’t get to me. Once they started, it was clearly going to be a treat. The singer, who I’ve met a few times at Barfly, was in a mood to entertain. Describing his band as “Stylish punks with weird hats”, the singer began by talking up the crowd and doing his best to get the Monday night crowd warmed up. He succeeded brilliantly. Every song was introduced with a title and a one liner to go along with it…..”This song’s called ‘Sex Injector’ – because I’ve been injecting sex ALL….DAY…LONG”, or “This is ‘Rubicon’ – it’s not very good, but it’s not very long”, and “This one’s digital – we play it with our fingers” on a song called “Computer”. Other song titles include “Pope John Paul” (chorus, whole crowd has to shout “Pope John Paul”), “Fecal Love”, and “Chicken Farm”. The Captains play great garage punk that had me rockin’ and laughing heartily. Looking forward to seeing these guys again, hopefully with a bassist.

The Nymphets were also pretty good. Decent punk rock, but I was so enthused with the Captains I couldn’t enjoy them as much. I’d see them again, though.

Blind – Barfly on Wednesday.

Blind have been playing Barfly for over 6 years now and I’ve been there since Day 1. They’re a long way from the days when it was just Colin on electric guitar and vocals and Peter M on piano. The addition a few years back of the legendary Stephen Barry on the upright bass has given them polish and legitimacy and turned this night into an event. It’s not unusual for them to have guest musicans, but it is unsual for them to have guest singers like they did this evening for one song – Katie Moore, Angela Desveaux, and Dara Weiss, a country/folk/bluegrass trio who all play guitar and have voices like angels. While regulars of Barfly’s “Bluegrass Night” are very familiar with these three, most of the Blind regulars had never heard or seen them before and were probably surprised to hear bluegrass break out in the middle of their blues. The crowd was wowed, though, and cheered them long and loud.

Neko Case – Club Soda on Friday.

This was my third time seeing Neko Case, and while better than her set at Metropolis opening for Wilco in 2003, it didn’t hold a candle to her set at Cabaret a couple of years ago. The Soda was packed but somewhat subdued for the size of the crowd. The set was short and there was no encore – is this becoming a trend? Good, glad I went, but nothing spectacular. I was sorry we missed the Sadies….

CPC Gangbangs/Starvin’ Hungry – L’Hemisphere Gauche on Saturday.

I’ve seen Starvin’ Hungry many times at Barfly, Sala Rosa, Sapphire, and now L’Hemisphere Gauche – a great venue with an actual pit and a 4 foot high stage. A great place to see a band but you have to be in or near the pit to really appreciate the sound. Needless to say, Starvin’ Hungry rocked. They’ve never sounded better and for my money they’re one of the great rock bands playing in this city. CPC Gangbangs are just insane! I could tell from the moment they hit the stage it was going to be old-fashioned punk rock with attitude. I found it hard to believe a band with this much attitude could come from Montreal – they felt more like some late 70’s New York punk band than a 2000s Montreal band. This wasn’t studs and leather punk, it wasn’t even thrash punk – the crowd seemed more into twitching and shaking than thrashing – it was fucked up on drugs punk. Kind of reminded me of the Deadboys and the Chromosomes, though at least one song reminded a friend of mine of the 13th Floor Elevators. Check these guys out at least once if if you’re into old school punk rock. It’s a scene, man.

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In this installment of writing about Alex’s favourite covers……

PagliaroLovin’ You Ain’t Easy

This one always brought a smile on my face because it was the only Top 10 hit Alex ever played. OK, it was top 10 in 1971, but still. “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy” is pop made in heaven. Pagliaro was always huge in Quebec but in Canada it was another matter. Growing up in Montreal in the 70s and 80s, it just wasn’t possible to go through life without hearing Pagliaro and being immediately hooked by this song. Shockingly, CBCs “50 track” show completely missed the boat and put Trooper on their list over Pagliaro. Go figure. Must be a Toronto thing. Here’s what one person had to say about this song from www.earcandymag.com, placing it number 9 on his “Ten Canadian Records You Shouldn’t Live Without”.

“There are two vividly distinct cultures, artistic AND social, living uncomfortably alongside one another in Canada: the largely French-speaking province of Quebec, and the entire REST of that gigantic nation! But even English Canada’s age-old suspicious aversion to their Quebec brethren would instantly melt whenever the triumphant voice of Michel Pagliaro appeared on the airwaves during the early Seventies. His absolute string of Top 40 masterpieces (many recorded at no less than the London studios of Apple Records …in and around Badfinger sessions!) remain defining moments in the History of Canadian Rock, and with them “Pag” made his mark as not only a Pure Pop Wonder, but a figure who all-too-briefly united Canada’s dual (and dueling) halves with nothing but a song.”

Meeting Night at Copa…

It was a very quiet weekend after a heavy meeting night on Thursday. I was just so burnt out, drained, and hungover I just lay low all weekend, with my only excursion being a visit to a friend’s in the Mile-End. We’ve got unseasonably mild weather at the moment, which makes most Montrealers happy in mid-winter. At the moment, a balmy 4 C and overcast. Very nice…

Our meeting for the “Alex Soria Memorial Concert”, to be held March 11 at the Main Hall, went well. Dan’s a real pro and I believe the organisation of the event itself is in good hands. There will be a fair amount of press coverage over the next few weeks, and if our best lineup all turns up, it should be a very entertaining night. More details in the next week or two as to the final lineup.

As for the night of the meeting itself…..

Rick and Kearns came over about an hour before, the 3 of us sitting around the kitchen table with “Electric Version” on the CD player in an effort to convert Kearns – Rick has heard it a few times by now and likes it. Mostly we chit-chat’ed and had a little pre-meeting discussion about Alex and the upcoming show. Then we made our way south on the Main to an unusually quiet Copa where it took me seconds to realize that Wilco’s “Ghost…” was playing. Rick and I looked at each other and smiled, knowingly. The three of us – Rick, Alex, and I – were huge Wilco fans together. By together, I mean that whenever we’d meet over the last few years, we always played Wilco. So Rick and I were immediately comfortable, as if Alex was there with us. Dan, Jim, and Carlos followed soon after. No one else noticed the significance of Wilco playing as we sat with beers discussing what will be Alex’s memorial, but it was enough that Rick and I did. And so it was that with Wilco in the background, and then Brian Wilson’s “Smile” after that, the meeting was held. That “Smile” was playing was almost like an inside joke between Rick and I since he knows and Alex knew how much I loved the original “Smile” and I’ve always been teased about being a shameless Brian Wilson fan.

After the meeting, all of us but Dan stuck around for a bit and then headed out to my place to listen to some of the CDs of unreleased Nils studio and live recordings Carlos had on him. This was a real treat, listening to a lot of songs I haven’t heard in years, including “Rock and Roll Banker”, written at a time time when Alex and I worked in the mailroom at a department of a well known Canadian bank. We listened to the Nils live at Foufounes (forget what year), but the best was the recording of the Nils reunion show at Cafe Campus on January 27 ’94. There are a lot of songs out there that no one has heard and our dream is to have all the best stuff released at some point. There’s no shortage of material, and it’s great knowing that a lot of songs have survived and will be heard.

While it was great sitting around listening to the Nils with all my long-time friends, it was also emotionally draining. It was like being thrown back into the world before Alex died, so close to him you could almost hear his laugh, and yet world’s apart from December 12. After my place, Rick walked Carlos for a few blocks and then met up with me at the ‘Fly where Tempus Fujit were playing classic jazz brilliantly. The night ended there, Rick and I sitting at the middle of the bar and trying to recover from the evening. We both felt it – drained and missing Alex – and just talked well past 2 AM. Rick left while I stayed until closing time, the last guy out the door.

I didn’t recover until Sunday morning.

Continuing on a theme of writing about some of Alex’s favourite covers…..

DevoMongoloid

If I could link to a Nils live recording of this song in mp3 format I would, because the Nils made this song better than the original. One of the first covers they ever did, it became a big favourite at Nils shows after the first time they played it. It was a song Alex always liked, but he wasn’t a big Devo fan and I think he saw something in it that even Devo didn’t. Devo’s version, in the day, was “New Wave”. The Nils’ version was “punk rock”. I’ll have to find out if there is a live recording of it somewhere.

Alex Ttribute Show

Tonight a bunch of us are getting together at the Copa to discuss the plan of action for the Alex Soria Tribute Concert to be held March 11 at the Main Hall. There’s a fair amount of work going into this, and I really hope it’s a success. If it could be nearly as good as the Jerry,Jerry farewell concert at Cafe Campus, I’d be happy. Hopefully, everyone who has ever played with Alex over the years will participate in some way. So far Carlos, Terry Toner (first drummer), Chico Fit, and Marc Donato (ex-Chino) are set play a good few Nils songs and from what I hear it’s sounding pretty good. Chico won’t be there until he arrives in from Vancouver the Tuesday before the show. There will be more than this happening, of course, and within the next couple of weeks artists will be confirmed. Looks like there’s also going to be a special MiMi awarded in Alex’s name to the most promising songwriter of the year. More on this when it’s made public.

The thing I’d like to see happen as well is a cover band doing all the covers Alex used to like doing over the years. My friend Kearns assembled a CD with just a few of the songs he used cover, and it’s awesome. It’s as if all the covers he ever did were his ultimate mixed-tape – songs he not only liked to listen to, but loved playing. I think I’m going to through this “mixed-tape” of Alex”s over the next month and remember…..

Neil YoungDon’t Cry No Tears

Alex loved Neil Young, and what Canadian rocker wouldn’t? One of my favourites, and I think even Neil himself would have thought Chino’s live version rocked. I can’t remember when Alex started playing it, but it integrated seamlessly into the set and a lot of people who didn’t know the original would mistake it for an Alex song. I can see why. The lead part is very typical of the kind of leads Alex usually concocted in his songs, and even the lyrics evoke a sentiment found in some of his lyrics – a longing for what is lost, but also resignation to one’s fate. I think Alex saw a kindred spirit in Neil Young through “Don’t Cry No Tears“.

The Future of America?

Freedom of what? reads the headline at CNN today. Just the ticket for the neo-cons. Call them Neo-Con Youth – the 49 % who either don’t know or actually don’t agree that newspapers “should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.” You deserve whatever you get if you don’t care one way or the other. You’re either a fascist or communist, IMHO, if you actually think the government should have a hand in filtering news. I doubt there are many communists among America’s new youth brigade.

Madness, is what it is.